meet the farmer

FAMILY HEIRLOOMS

Tomato farmer Ray Yeung follows in his father’s footsteps.

WRITTEN BY ELIZABETH PENNEY

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Photo of farmers: From left, Mario Gasca, Antonio Diaz, and Ray Yeung use a tractor to
till the soil and tend to the produce at Yeung Farms Specialty Produce in West Sacramento. Photo by Raoul Ortega

Farmer Ray Yeung didn’t get into the heirloom tomato business for tomato glory or to make money. Nor did he have any particular affection for tomatoes.

“When I started this business, it wasn’t about making money,” Yeung says. “It was about providing employment opportunities while making a product I could be proud to put my name on.”

Thanks to the temperate climate and fertile soil of Sacramento and Yolo counties, not to mention the proximity to the Sacramento River, Yeung Farms Specialty Produce, situated between Woodland and Sacramento, harvests from late June to November. This means there is little downtime on the farm, and his workers are able to earn enough to support their families.

“You have to keep people employed all year long,” Yeung says. “They have to make a living.”

Tough love

Yeung’s heirlooms, which have earned a bit of a cult following among chefs and foodies, are vine ripened and handpicked. He says the secret to their success is that he doesn’t coddle them. Rather, he deprives them of water, which causes stress to the plants and in turns brings out more sugar.

“One thing that sets us apart is we treat our tomatoes rough,” he says. “We don’t spoil them.”

Yeung also lets the vines grow naturally, without staking. This shortens the generation time from two months to one, meaning the vines always will be fresh and the tomatoes more flavorful than ordinary grocery store varieties.

“You’ll always get a tomato from us from a fresh vine,” he says. “It makes you feel good knowing you’ve brought pleasure to people.”

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Assorted heirloom tomatoes grown at Yeung Farms Specialty Produce. Photo by Marissa Montoya, Produce Express

Flavorful history

Yeung always knew he’d be a farmer. His father, Joe Yeung, started farming near Woodland after returning from the Korean War in the 1950s. Ray worked on his dad’s farm for decades before branching out on his own to grow processing tomatoes, pumpkins, and winter squash. In the late 1990s, Yeung asked his processing tomatoes supplier for some tomatoes that could be eaten fresh off the vine. What he got were heirlooms.

“I had no clue what an heirloom tomato was,” he says. “All I knew is they were beautiful. Red, orange, yellow — even blue and purple. The colors of the rainbow.”

Yeung sold his heirloom tomatoes at farmers’ markets, and by the early 2000s, the heirloom craze was in full swing. Today, he grows about 20 varieties, including pineapple, pink brandywine, green zebra, and Cherokee purple.

Yeung doesn’t see much changing on his farm. Technology advances, ideas come and go, but hard work still is at the heart of his operation.

“To grow things that taste good, you have to do it the old-fashioned way,” he says. “You can’t replicate that.”

Yeung’s favorite way to eat his heirloom tomatoes? Sandwiched between Wonder Bread with crisply grilled Spam, Cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, and mustard. He also eats them in a salad with cucumbers, jalapeño, red onion, vinegar, and honey mustard.

Elizabeth Penney is a freelance wine, food, and travel writer based in Sacramento.

Resources

How to store tomatoes
To store an heirloom tomato, according to Ray Yeung:

  • Eat them right away.
  • Don’t put them in the fridge.
  • Keep them at room temperature.
  • Keep them out of direct sunlight.

Where to find Yeung’s tomatoes

To sink your teeth into one of Ray Yeung’s heirloom tomatoes, visit Oto’s Marketplace, Taylor’s Market, or Corti Brothers locations in Sacramento. They also are served at the following Sacramento restaurants: Mulvaney’s B&L (try the gazpacho or tomato and mozzarella salad), Paragary’s, OneSpeed, and Hot Italian.

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